Ranked 14th in the country against the run, allowing just 119.1 yards per game on the ground, Coach Gary Pinkel's defense has been one of the biggest reasons why in just their second season in the league the Tigers are playing for the SEC Championship.
"They have a great defensive line and defensive ends so I think that's a big strength for them," Auburn junior Corey Grant said. "I think that's going to be a big challenge for us, but I think we'll find a way."
Finding a way is what the Tigers have done all season long on the ground. Averaging 318.3 yards per game, leading the SEC and fifth in the country, Auburn's running game has 39 rushing touchdowns this season with Tre Mason's 18 leading the way. Coming off a 2012 season when the Tigers ran for just 16 touchdowns as a team, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said as much as anything this season it has been about confidence and the play of the offensive line.
"I think when we played Georgia they were second in the league, Alabama was first and Missouri has moved up to second in the league against the rush," Lashlee said. "This time of year we've just been playing really good teams and our offensive line has done a really good job. Pretty much every game this year we've had success running the football. They've done a really good job on the first level not giving up penetration, getting movement at the point of attack and Tre and Nick (Marshall) and Cameron (Artis-Payne) and Corey and those guys have done a really good job because they've gotten them three, four or five yards down the field.
"They do a really good job making that first guy miss or reading and pressing off blocks and stuff. Sometimes even when you don't maybe get to a linebacker or safety that gives you guys a chance but I think a lot of the credit goes to our kids, the guys up front. We've challenged them each week to play physical Auburn football and I think they've done that."
The numbers bear that out. Against the 11 FBS teams Auburn has faced this season the Tigers have a total of 3,308 rushing yards. Those 11 teams have given up a total of 22,209 yards on the ground so far in 2013. That means Auburn has accounted for 14.9 percent of all the rushing yards its opponents have given up this season. That's just a staggering number and shows this team has been successful no matter the opposition.
In week three of the season Mississippi State held Auburn to just 120 yards rushing, the only time this season the Tigers were held under 200 yards. That was a game however when the Tigers and Nick Marshall threw for over 300 yards to get a late victory. Since that time this offense has taken off with its 233 yards against Arkansas the closest any team has kept the Tigers to its defensive rushing average (Razorbacks are allowing 178.4 ypg).
Some of the totals are just mind-blowing. Ole Miss is allowing 155.3 and Auburn pounded the Rebels for 282. Texas A&M is allowing 221.3 and the Tigers pushed them for 379. Tennessee is giving up 207.3 and Auburn set a conference school record with 444 yards on the ground. Then you have Georgia and Alabama.
Two of the top teams in the league in rushing defense entering the game, the Bulldogs allow just 148.5 per game this season while Alabama gives up only 108.3. In those two games alone Auburn had 619 yards on the ground. Against the Crimson Tide Auburn had 296 yards rushing on a team that has given up just 1,300 yards all season long. That's 22.7 percent of all the rushing yards they have given up this season, and in just one game.
A central figure in Auburn's running game, Grant is third on the team with 585 yards and five touchdowns this season. Leading the way, Mason has 1,317 yards on 237 carries. Perhaps his best day came last weekend as he pounded Alabama's defense for 164 yards on 29 carries as part of a big day for the Tigers. Grant said that having that kind of day against the Crimson Tide was another big step for the offense and the running game as a whole.
"That puts a lot of confidence with them being a great defense and run stopping defense and putting up the yards that we did overall," Grant said. "The O-Line did a great job. Tre and Nick contributed with a lot of yards. That puts a lot of confidence with us that we did that. We're going to take that into the next game and try to do that again."
With 108 carries in the last four games, Mason has become the workhorse for Auburn's offense with Marshall delivering big plays in both the running game and through the air. Running behind an offensive line that has developed into perhaps the best in the SEC, Lashlee said Mason has been a huge asset because of his ability to turn every run into something positive.
The Tigers will face a Missouri defense that has shown the ability to shut down the run. Holding all 12 opponents under their final season average on the ground, Pinkel's group has yet to allow 200 yards in a single game this year with last week's 184 yards by Texas A&M the most they have allowed this season. With one game for all the marbles in the SEC, Grant said he's hoping this is the week the Auburn offense puts it all together.
"I think we have to get a lot better," Grant said. "Each week we just try to get better week by week. We still haven't had our best game yet. We have a lot of improvement to do. I think it's scary, that day when we do have that best game. There is a lot of room for improvement though."
Kickoff for the SEC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome is scheduled for 3 p.m. central and can be seen nationally on CBS.